PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- When Isaac Holmes spent his freshman year redshirting, and had to go through the monotony of practicing without the reward of playing on Saturdays, he began to lose his love for the game of football. He began questioning his skills. He began thinking maybe he couldn't make it at this level.
"It's a struggle. It's a big thing on your shoulders," Holmes said of not playing after Rutgers' third spring practice. "You're so used to being that guy and going out there and performing well and not to play early, it's like you know what, is it for me? Can I do it? Is this my level? And when I finally figured that out, I was able to play a lot harder and my play improved drastically and that really got me to the point I'm at now."
That point is starting at nose tackle for what's expected to be a vaunted defense.
Holmes' love for the game is back. So is his confidence, and the belief that he can compete at this level. He showed as much last season with 12 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 13 games in a reserve role.
The 6-foot-3, 275-pounder has begun maturing into the player people thought he was going to be out of high school.
"The difference between everything [from the first two years] is that it was a struggle for me early. I struggled with being in shape and stuff like that. I always struggled," Holmes said. "And to finally start to pick it up and to see my body changing and to see my attitude toward things changing -- I started to get a lot more playing time and the more and more I started to love the game itself and now my coaches actually see it in my play. So that allowed me and gave me the opportunity to actually get out there and start to play much more."
The increased workload gives the Hoboken, N.J. native the chance to have a breakout year, something his teammates know he can do.
And something they need him to do.
"When you watch him on the field and you watch him on the film he stands out because he's making a lot of plays -- he's a playmaker, so we definitely need him. We need him to keep improving this camp," fellow defensive tackle Scott Vallone said. "That's what we're looking for out of Ike. He's got to be one of the guys that's able to step up."
That is something his teammates expect he'll do.
After a couple of years of anonymity, Holmes parlayed his playing time into one of the best spring practices of all the players.
"Of course," offensive guard Antwan Lowery said when asked if he saw a difference in Holmes' mentality. "The kid's hungry. He knows it's his time like we all do and we see the potential in him, and it's up to him go out there and do what he's got to do."